Stolen Sandwiches and Microwaved Fish: Returning to the Bizarre Office Lunch Policy

In the second season opener of the cult-favorite comedy series, “I Think You Should Leave,” Tim Robinson plays Pat, an office worker who has just been informed of an unexpected meeting at noon. “But it’s lunch,” Robinson says, dropping the hot dog into her hands.

“We postponed lunch to 1:30 pm so Dennis could catch the flight back to Chicago,” his coworker responds with a sigh, before heading down the hall. Pat thinks for a moment, before muttering to himself, “I don’t know if you’re allowed to do that.”

However, Pat dutifully enters the board room for the meeting, walking with an oddly stiff cadence, one arm extended parallel to the floor. Once he sits down, it’s clear he’s hiding his hot dog in his blazer sleeve. He takes a pseudo-discreet bite under the guise of scratching his chin.

Related: The only thing my quarantine brain wants to watch right now is comedy

Eventually he holds his head in his hands for another bite, then puts his head on the boardroom table for another. “Is that a hot dog?” a colleague whistles. Pat replies that he’s tired, “the most tired he’s ever been”, in fact.

“Pat, we know you’re eating a hot dog down there,” his boss finally chimes in, before Pat suddenly goes limp and silent. Someone grabs Pat’s arm to make sure he’s okay, and Pat jumps out of his chair – hot dog stuck between his throat and mouth. All of his coworkers try to help him dislodge the hot dog, but Pat starts thrashing around like a rabid animal. They finally push him into a corner while Pat holds a choke hold on some guy in a button down, and the hot dog is finally dislodged.

Pat looks at them with tears in his eyes, but instead of thanking or apologizing, he delivers a single piece of wisdom.

“You can’t skip lunch, you just can’t, folks,” he says, with tears in his eyes.

This sketch has become an instant classic of the internet age, inspiring oil paintings, remote office protocol and visits to real life hot dog carts. It’s one of those comedies that is greater than the sum of its parts, and as such, it practically lives for free in my brain. I think that aside from the physical feel-in-the-body comedy, it’s because there’s definitely something inherently ridiculous about the office lunch.

I’ve been thinking about this a lot (an embarrassing amount, to be honest) as more and more people I know are returning to their jobs in real office buildings, spending their days relaxing each other behind the partial gray walls of their homes. cubicles. We, as a society, throw people into this sterile but emotionally burdened environment – ​​where deadlines, layoffs and budgets loom closer – and we expect them to act normally, but it doesn’t always work that way.

There are unspoken rules and petty office policies that underpin day-to-day interactions. As Tim Robinson so eloquently pointed out, everyone needs lunch; this is often when those seething tensions begin to boil over, much like the cafeteria lunch for the school-age set.

There are unspoken rules and petty office policies that underpin day-to-day interactions. As Tim Robinson so eloquently pointed out, everyone needs lunch; this is often when those seething tensions begin to boil over, much like the cafeteria lunch for the school-age set.

This is partly why the archives of business advice columns like Ask A Manager are filled with food-related questions. There are a number of memorable scandals, from a manager who kept asking an employee to share food with her (and would be grumpy if the employee didn’t comply), to the Keto-obsessed co-worker who couldn’t stop embarrassing the office snacks. , and the woman who made NSFW noises while tasting the chocolate cake a co-worker had made.

Most questions, however, involve food being stolen from a communal office fridge. It’s such a bizarre violation. You have food that someone else made or bought — and let’s face it, you’ve probably been looking forward to it since you packed it that morning — and someone in the office feels entitled to just grab the fridge and get it. It inspires a unique kind of anger, as well as an obvious question: “What kind of person would do that?”

It’s a seemingly perennial issue. In 1998, the “Friends” episode “The One With Ross’ Sandwich” aired for the first time. In it, Ross is falling apart in the face of his pending divorce and recent eviction. “The only good thing happening [his] life”, is the leftover Thanksgiving sandwich he packed to eat at work. Inevitably, it gets stolen, even though he leaves a note, which reads: OCD Toc. Who’s there? Ross Geller’s lunch. Ross Geller’s lunch, who? Ross Geller’s lunch, please don’t take me. OK?

Just over two decades later, Ask a Manager posts a question from a reader that could easily have been a discarded plot from a comedy series or sitcom.

“My food is always very, very spicy,” the prosecutor wrote. “I love it that way. Anyway, I was sitting at my desk when my coworker ran out, having trouble breathing. He then ran to the bathroom and started getting sick. Turns out he ate my clearly labeled lunch. ( It was also in a cooler lunch box to keep it cold from work to home as it’s a long drive.) There was nothing different about my lunch that day, it was actually just leftovers from my dinner the night before.

Fast forward a day and the individual’s boss asks if the advice seeker tried to poison the coworker. Human Resources got involved. A case at the office was revealed and the prosecutor was eventually released – but not before he was briefly fired.

It’s one of those advice columns where you question for a minute whether the dilemma is really based on the truth. However, just a few weeks ago, I saw a viral Reddit post where there was a picture of a drinking fountain. On the fridge was a note: “Hello water drinker, if you would like to enjoy this delicious SPRING WATER FROM POLAND, please see Sandra or Michelle to sign up for the very cool WATER CLUB. This water is not free. Enjoying refills unlimited for $5 a month.”

I initially retweeted the photo thinking it was a joke until several people I know – mostly academics and government officials – responded that their departments have also implemented water clubs since returning to personal work. It was one of those bizarre bits of office protocol that also looks like it could be turned into a sketch, but which they were adjusting to in real time.

There are even full articles written on the etiquette of eating in an office environment, further proving the point that we as human beings have forgotten how to normally behave within the confines of the office kitchen.

There are even full articles written on the etiquette of eating in an office environment, further proving the point that we as human beings have forgotten how to normally behave within the confines of the office kitchen.

I’m partial to this article by Alyse Whitney: “7 office microwave etiquette rules to follow so your coworkers don’t hate you.” The rules are pretty self-explanatory – don’t microwave Brussels sprouts or seafood, use splash protection, clean up after yourself – but I like the framing.

One of the things I’m most curious to see play out is how, after more than two years of many office workers shifting to work from home, the return to community lunch plays out. Publications ranging from the BBC to Scientific American have established that people have almost forgotten how to be sociable; Will there be new ways in which office politics rears its ugly head in the cafeteria? Or is it simply more cases of stolen sandwiches and microwaved salmon? I suppose only time, and future editions of Ask a Manager, will tell.

Make your office lunch fun again:

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